Independent Film Week - State of Film Festivals - Sept. 15, 2008
Independent Film Week
Monday, September 15, 2008
FIT – Haft Auditorium – New York, NY
Monday at Independent Film Week, IFP Executive Director Michelle Byrd moderated the State of Film Festivals discussion with Christian Gaines and Geoff Gilmore. Below is an edited transcript of the main points brought out in the discussion.
Michelle Byrd, IFP
Christian Gaines, Sundance Film Festival
Geoff Gilmore, withoutabox
Byrd: Can you talk about the different sections in Sundance and the process for acceptance into the festival?
Gilmore: The Sundance Film Festival has three different arenas. The competitions are four of them: two international and two domestic and documentary and dramatic. The American dramatic competition has to be a world premiere. We picked 16 films in each of those two sections out of somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,500 dramatic submissions and somewhere around 1,000 documentary submissions. The international competition needs to be a U.S. premiere. It started four years ago. In addition, we have a premiere section which tends to be that section of the festival which has higher visibility in terms of the fact that there’s more prominent directors, sometimes some that already have distribution. We have a section that’s kind of a catch all section called Spectrum where films that have not already had world premieres play internationally or domestic. There’s an enormous mythology about how festivals choose programs. A number of people have told me that a sales agent has told a filmmaker that they met Geoff Gilmore and it could get into Sundance…all I can do is role my eyes and say sure and come back and say that’s fine…what the real truth is basically it’s submitted and we look at it. We have an honestly intelligent staff who works their asses off looking at every single film that gets submitted to the film festival. We debate what gets into the festival. We debate what should be in different sections. Ultimately the choice if it gets into the Sundance Film Festival is made by one person, which is me for features. The shorts are chosen by Trevor Groth?? and a group of people. The questions that people have so often in what we’re looking for…that’s why it’s so difficult to talk about the process, because we’re not looking for simple things. There’s maybe 20 different reasons why a film plays at Sundance. It may be a question of its content. It may be a question of its originality. It may be a question of its distinction as a genre film. It may be an experimental work. There’s a lot of different kinds of films. All I can really say to you is don’t make a decision as to what you think we’re looking for. Don’t make your decision as to what you think a Sundance film is because it’s quite a spectrum. The idea that we actually have a certain kind of an agenda is the opposite. If I’m an agenda, I’m not going to pick up on the films that are coming from you guys, because that’s my agenda to pick movies as opposed to literally what comes right to me. In order for us to respond to the range of work that’s been given to us, I want my staff to be as open as possible. I’m not trying to pick films that are commercial. I’m not trying to pick films that get sold.
Byrd: You recently left AFI. Can you talk about the various festivals under the AFI banner and their festival selection processes?
Gaines: The submission process for larger festivals in the U.S. and around the world are fairly similar with some modifications. Their job is to methodically go through these films and to have the cream rise to the surface. Obviously incredibly to do with thousands of submissions, but methodically speaking, many programmers that work on the process, they look at films, they grade them, they review them, they comment on them. They urge other festival programmers to look at them. Sometimes to specific festival programmers that respond to this kind of work. It’s a constant narrowing process. It’s also worth mentioning there’s a certain general misconception that there’s huge pile of films and putting all the good ones on one side and the bad ones on another side. It’s not as simple as that. There are sections are different sections and criteria. It’s worth knowing what festival submission criteria are. It’s worth knowing that Toronto doesn’t show shorts outside of Canadian shorts, for example. Pay attention to those kinds of criteria. Pay attention to the process.
Gilmore: I can’t tell you how many times someone’s walked up and say, do you watch all the movies? It’s confusing to me. How do you think we select them? Do you watch them the whole way through. In most of the cases, yes. It’s our job to look at your work and be open job. It’s not our job to sit on high and anointed. It doesn’t work that way.
Byrd: How do you make decision about which one is best? What’s the role of the film festival?
Gilmore: I make the distinction of festivals that are markets and festivals that aren’t. There are festivals with formal markets like Cannes. There’s festivals like Sundance that are an informal market. A lot that goes on at Cannes is not about the buying new feature films. It’s pre-buying films at the script stage. The pre-buying market at Cannes is far more important than the issue of buying the film out of the competition. The other festivals, each of them have their own roles. One has to unfortunately has to make these decisions not by yourself hopefully but with some real advice on the best places to go. I just came from Toronto. One of the great film festivals in the world, but it pisses me off because they show 300+ pictures. Essentially what that means is 150 films that go to Toronto are disappearing year. It’s bad for anybody who’s trying to pay attention to all the films in the program. Toronto is a very difficult festival to sell, because it’s more of a launch festival than a sale festival. It’s one of the best public festivals in the world. The people who go to Toronto are real people. I think what you want to do is get your film in front of real people and get buyers at that screening.
Gaines: There’s a big difference a guy or a gal who has a film and puts their next film out there and suddenly thinks of themselves as filmmaker in the long run. I would just really dissuade that notion. There’s so much to be learned from establishing relationships with people…just people who are of your community. Film festivals are places where you can develop and deepen your pool of comrades, colleagues. You can’t underestimate that. The treasured treat of having your film seen in front of people that aren’t your family and friends and having your film be reacted to who aren’t you or like you is a real pleasure and growing experience. Being able to get press and publicity in all kinds of places other than huge media environments. All these things are part of the things that are going to deepen your understand of the industry and put you in a much better position if an agent comes along.
Byrd: Do you have any idea how many festivals there are in the U.S.?
Gaines: 700 million.
Gilmore: Not far along. There’s a difference between the top tier festivals that are maybe 7 or 8 in the world, and another set of really important regional festivals which are one step down. The strategy of how you to decide which to go to is one of the most important that you make.
Gaines: You can’t throw a rock without hitting a film festival in the U.S. It’s up to a filmmaker to do their due diligence and have a buyer beware approach. There’s nothing wrong with a lot of film festivals. In fact, it’s a very good thing in part because film festivals become an ad hoc distribution outlet for films that will otherwise never be seen. The revenue model that exists behind it is still uncertain. It’s true that festivals still have this U.S./World Premiere competitiveness. My general feeling about that is that so many films are unattainable to most festivals because great films that aren’t being considered by U.S. distributors coming out of Cannes, a lot of those films will never see the light of day in an American film festival, which is a real shame. Right after Cannes, it’s not unusual for a sales agent to get three or four hundred invitations from festivals from around the world saying we want to share that film. Something’s got to change in terms of how they can be seen.
Byrd: What do you think Sundance will be like 10 years from and thinking about the climate for independent film? Everybody’s been reading all the press about ‘The Sky is Falling.’ What can you imagine the festival becoming?
Gilmore: Two years ago Sundance had about $15 million worth of films. Last year, that number was a quarter. The theatrical marketplace for independent features is not at it’s best moment. Why? I don’t know. I have lots of answers. Maybe it’s ultimately the movies. Maybe it’s what drives specialized films is changing. Coen Bros. film lead the weekend. Some people don’t even consider that to be independent anymore. More films got distributed theatrically last year than any time since the 1950s. It’s my standard joke, and it’s not so funny that the issue of finding visibility and distribution for work has become the function of film festivals, which I think is bad. I think the cultural and aesthetic function of festivals, the showcasing and experimentation, the work that festivals do cannot be reduced by this kind of business. We have to figure out what the distribution mechanisms will become. I do believe that technology at festivals is going to evolve. I do believe that the generation of filmmakers growing up now have a much better way of dealing with alternative distribution. Whether or not festivals have cyber space sections. Whether or not that cyber space section helps market a film or gives it visibility. Those are really good questions right now. On-the-ground events and cyber space events have to work together.
Byrd: The film “Sugar” that played at Sundance, if you were to see it on a third screen in cyber space, what would it take for Sundance to take that leap?
Gilmore: If don’t just put it on the net and say let’s watch it. You make it a special event. We’re going to work these things out, because it’s not been done. The bad news with what’s going on with festivals right now, festivals are too long, too crowded, their overwhelmed by people who want their faces to be photographed. They’re overwhelmed by agents who want to showcase their work. There’s too much mediocrity at festivals. What used to be exciting about festivals was, ‘that was a fucking great film,’ not ‘how much do you think it’s going to make?’ The question of how much is a film going to make cannot be what drives film festivals over the next decade.
Gaines: I’d like to add on to what Geoff was saying about why film festivals suck. There are so many different constituents now who converge onto film festivals who desire a different experience. All of those different people are essential for the survival of the festivals. Corporate sponsors and the media. So many festivals start now for reasons that are outreach projects for larger cultural institutions. They’re the film commission’s baby. All these different institutions desire different outcomes. It ultimately takes away the treasured dignity of having your film seen in the best possible picture and sound, best possible environment in an enhanced way. As far as the future of film festivals, I always have this image of a rock t-shirt, but instead of the rock band in front, it’s the name of the film and on the back, it’s a list of all the films it played at and that’s it’s theatrical distribution and each one of the places there was an economic model that worked.
Byrd: Can you talk about withoutabox?
Gaines: Withoutabox was founded in 2000. Designed to provide self-distribution tools for filmmakers. It’s the ability for filmmakers to submit to many film festivals in a simple and intuitive way to track the submissions and make sense of the submission process. In January, the company was bought by IMDB. Through IMDB and its parent company Amazon’s various online and DVD distribution devices, will be over the course of the next few years, developing the ability to offer WAB filmmakers to be able to distribute their film either online as a pay-per-view format or a streaming format on IMDB. WAB is a huge aggregated mass of right holders. We’re trying to offer non-exclusive opportunities, so watch this space for future developments.